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As I think about the children and families enrolled in our services and across the community, I feel the weight of concern for them and the challenges they’ve faced over the past 18 months. I also feel compelled to find ways to do more to improve the trajectories of their lives in the years ahead. To do that, we reached out to our St. David’s Center community to learn more about their worries, and we conducted research to understand how these concerns align within a broader context. I’d like to share some of the feedback we’ve heard directly from our parents and staff in recent months, as well as what we’ve gleaned from recent national, state, and county reports in the environmental scan we completed this month.

Parent Satisfaction and Strategic Input Surveys
We asked for our parents’ input through semi-annual surveys in November 2020 and May 2021. Their comments named anxieties about their children’s development, their ability to manage emotions and interact with peers and adults, their longer-term ability to be independent and self-sufficient, and more.

We asked: What goals do you have for your child that you trust St. David’s Center will meet?  Here was a sample of our parents’ responses:

  • “Therapy – emotional control.”
  • “To be successful and able to go to school with no problems.”
  • “More self-control, self-regulation, less impulsivity, improved social interactions.”
  • “To adjust to life despite significant childhood trauma.”
  • “That my son’s anxiety will decrease so he can do things independently.”

These are some of the voices that stay with me.

National, State, and County Reports
Hearing the level of stress and anxiety in so many parents’ comments, coupled with concerns that came from staff focus groups and input sessions, we sought insight from national, state, and county sources to further inform our direction going forward. Following are a number of important findings:

  • Nearly 1 in 7 children aged 2 to 8 years in the United States has a mental, behavioral, or develop­mental disorder. Among children and adolescents aged 9 to 17 years, as many as 1 in 5 may have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.
  • Among children living below 100% of the federal poverty level, more than 1 in 5 have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
  • Approximately 50% to 75% of youth in the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a mental health disorder.
  • More than half of children in the United States who have a high number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or symptoms of psychological distress received no behavioral health services.  
  • In January 2021, 40% of adults reported experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety—three times more than the rate in the first half of 2019.
  • People from racial/ethnic minority groups are less likely to receive mental health care.
  • While most states report reductions in out-of-school suspensions since 2011, rates have increased in 8 states. Unfortunately, Minnesota is one of those states. 
  • An estimated 1 in 6 children in the United States have at least 1 developmental delay, yet less than 20% of those children receive early intervention services before 3 years of age.
  • For children who lack access to high quality early learning programs, gaps – whether we call them educational disparities or inequities in opportunity – are forming between them and their more well-off peers as young as 18 months old.
  • Our school districts are also reporting an increased need for mental health services on site. One district leader talked about the “silent struggle” she saw in families this past year, where parents are unable to name that they have needs they are unable to meet.

These are concerns, needs, missed opportunities, and inequities that – if left unaddressed – will only grow, deepen, and become more magnified over the course of their lives. If you wonder what keeps the CEO of a large children and family services organization up at night, it is trying to find the answer to this important question:

How do we position St. David’s Center to be a strong and steady resource for children and families during these challenging times, when there is so much need?

How do we do so, while managing our waitlists that are longer than they have ever been? How do we support parents of young children who are trying to balance the needs of their families with the pressures of work? How do we support our staff who are facing the same struggle, as well as their own set of pressures and worries? How do we address the disparities and inequities across our community when there is so much need but not enough people in the field to respond to the size of the problem? How do we meet children and families as this current crisis unfolds and takes a toll on the mental health of everyone involved – perhaps most especially our children?

As I sort these questions, it has been helpful to me to re-read some recent articles from the CEO of a national healthcare market intelligence and consulting firm, Monica E. Oss of OPEN MINDS, who has spoken wisdom into our organization over the last year. Monica has observed that in times of crisis, resilient organizations respond with good market intelligence on changing customer preferences (and community needs), paired with clear performance data to support prompt decision-making and transparency with stakeholders — both internal and external. She’s also seen how resilient organizations are responsive, nimble, and able to adjust strategies and processes quickly. Monica’s observations have served as good reminders of how we must act as we position St. David’s Center for growth in the months and years ahead.

I have also turned to the book, Emotional Agility, by Susan David. In it, Susan explains how the most effective leaders show up in relationships with emotional agility – i.e. curiosity, compassion, and courage. Susan’s words have reminded me of how these are the core principles that have guided St. David’s Center though six decades and should continue to guide us today.

This is what St. David’s Center has been for 60 years – an organization that listens, observes, learns, adapts, and responds to families with compassion and courage. And this is what we must continue to be. We must listen carefully to children, families, and partners in the community to learn what is needed from us now and in the years ahead. We must pay attention to the voices of those with lived experiences as we seek to be a partner in co-creating solutions to current problems. And we must do so in the context of authentic relationships along with nimble and innovative responses. This is a tall order but one that we can meet – especially if we do this together. I am all in! And I hope you are, too.

Julie Sjordal
CEO, St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development

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